‘Incentives and policies may help young couples expand their families’


PETALING JAYA: Whether it is ringgit and sen or a matter of personal choice, experts say some incentives and policies may help young couples expand their families.

Malaysian Research Institute on Ageing (MyAgeing) senior research officer Chai Sen Tyng believes that the decision to have children is usually based on lifestyle decisions, adding that it would be “truly tragic” if the future generation feels that it is costly to have children and make their decisions solely from a monetary perspective.

“Cost of living and financial reasons are a convenient and legitimate reason for having fewer children, delaying having children to being child-free.

“I have often challenged that narrative because we rarely balance out those perspectives by asking couples who plan or have children why they choose to have kids. It boils down to values, not utility,” he said.

In the past, having children was not just an investment for old age but also a means of household labour, Chai said.

“As times change, having children is becoming a choice as contraceptives become commonplace. If more and more people marry out of love or by personal choice, many other decisions in the family become genuinely optional. Having kids is a serious responsibility and a long-term commitment as well as an investment fraught with risks,” he added.

“We can begin by stopping and ending the finance-dominant perspective and encourage young couples to think about sacrifices.

There are a lot of misleading metrics out there, saying a child will cost an extra RM1,000 to a household budget or expenditure.

“The truth is couples make do with whatever salaries they have to maintain their household. Having a child is costly,” he said.

He said the government can help by incentivising birth and childcare and providing free, quality education.

“We can do more studies, but stakeholders need to balance the rights to contraceptives and parental choice with policies that recognise parental and family leave, prioritising a work-life balance that is both child- and elderly-friendly.

“There are a lot of policy choices, and we are now exploring some of them, such as the care economy.

“We need to think about the call for a greater female labour force participation rate and commodification of care,” he added.

Professor of Economics Geoffrey Williams from the Malaysian University of Science and Technology viewed smaller families or having no children as offering a much better life for many compared to what was available in the past.

“Having large families has been a burden for many people and has held back their families due to the costs of bringing up many children who have suffered deprivation as a consequence.

“Family savings have suffered, and inter-generational poverty has arisen. Usually, daughters have to take on care responsibilities for parents who became poor because of large families,” he said.

Williams said the decision to be child-free is influenced by more than just financial considerations, as previously having many children was a sign of success in society.

He said factors such as personal choice, resistance to social pressure and increased opportunities due to higher income and education play a significant role.

“The cost of living explanation for delayed parenting and fewer children may be overstated. Large families are associated with low income, and smaller families are associated with high income.

“It is not necessarily that you cannot afford to have children, which leads to the decision for smaller families,” he added.

He said while the government should not directly interfere with private decisions on family planning, they should offer options such as extending paternity leave and other benefits for parents.

“Welfare payments to mothers often have negative and unintended consequences as it could incentivise early parenting, especially among low-income groups and young women.

“There is often social pressure to have children early assisted by welfare payments. This damages the life prospects of young women,” he said.

“With longer maternity leave for women, said employers are less likely to employ women.

“If men had equal paternity leave, that distinction would be eliminated, and women would be more equal in the workforce.

“Indirectly, the government can improve childcare options to allow greater flexibility for working for both genders.”

According to sociologist and gerontologist Dr Wan Ibrahim Wan Ahmad, the solution to the current declining birth rate issue depends heavily on national policy.

He said there are countries with leaders who are ‘pro-natalist’ that encourage high birth rates by applying policies that encourage married couples to have many children.

“It was once popular with the Malaysian population policy towards gaining 70 million people launched by then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1982,” he said.

Wan Ibrahim said the trend among most married couples in Malaysia is to have between two and three children compared to five or more in the past.

Based on the current scenario, he said the fertility rate of the Malaysian population will certainly decrease again and will continue to decrease significantly.

“This is because the level of fertility depends on the number of children a woman can give birth to during her fertile period. The most productive time is during their youth, ending after women are between 45 years old and above.

“If many young couples do not intend to have children, the fertility level of the country’s population will decline,” he said.

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